Wow! My first completed novel ‘Akane: the Last of the Orions‘ turned TWO on Monday! I still remember reading the opening passage to hubby – we were still travelling and he’d gone surfing. When he got back to our apartment (we were in Florianopolis in Brazil) I read what I’d written to him, explained the premise and where I hoped it would go and he loved it! Still can’t believe it would be another another eight years before it would be published, and in some ways I can’t believe it WAS published AND that readers are still enjoying the characters I created a decade ago! (It’s currently got 5* reviews on Amazon) Random fact, Akane is actually named after one of my Japanese students, an adorable and feisty five year old who would always put her older brother in his place during our lessons.
Ock Pop Tok (East meets West) is a social enterprise where local women are employed to teach traditional textile crafts. It was still in its infancy when we were there so I’m really pleased to see from their website that they’re continuing to do well as I have such fond memories of my day there and the amazing staff who taught me with such humour and patience.
I remember there’s a stunning garden where my guide taught me about traditional silk dying, and the plants used. We collected different plants and I dyed skeins (does silk come in skeins like wool? Let me know below) of silk which I’ve still got on display.
Then it was on to the silk weaving. I’m not going to pretend I understand the machine – it was a large contraption with more threads going everywhere than Shelob’s lair! I remember it being a little tricky feet, as I needed to press each paddle (again, sorry to any weavers if I’m using the wrong terminology) to move the threads and create the pattern. Once in the ‘swing’ it was surprisingly quick to create my piece.
I chose a ‘naga’ pattern, a traditional Buddhist symbol which I was told was a protective, wise deity.
And here’s my finished piece! Happy to say it’s still pride of place, currently in our bedroom. So many happy memories.
My daughter is rapidly growing and with assorted atrocities being reported daily, from Syria, Chechnya, the US and closer to home my heart aches for her and her future. I pray for those who’ve lost loved ones and can’t imagine their pain.
I remember as a child being in London when the IRA decided to bomb near the Tower of London. I was still young and it was one of the few times my mum and I were doing the ‘tourist’ thing in London. The one thing which I still remember is standing in a telephone box with my mum (no mobiles then), ringing to say we were safe, then the trek back to my grandmothers. The city seemed strangely calm and everyone was giving directions, updates on the situation and generally helping. There were no recriminations, no abuse or divisions, we were all just humans, trying to get home to our loved ones and I’m so thankful to everyone who helped us. Like now, there are incredible stories of kindness, compassion, of people helping who didn’t need to. In the words of Jo Cox, MP, there truly is more that binds us than divides us.
And now to the present. On a daily basis, I learn so much from her – through playing, discovering new places, and importantly the people we meet. She doesn’t see colour, race, religion, she simply sees a new friend to talk to, share her toys with and share her world. I hope we can all start to do the same.
You’ll remember a few weeks ago I ran out of soap, so used ‘melt and pour’ goats milk soap. The results were fine and I’ve been happily scrubbing with the coffee grounds, but I didn’t really know what was in the soap and was keen to learn to do it properly.
Luckily I know Sharon, owner and maker of ‘Soap Daze‘ based in Devon. She’s been making natural soaps for about six years and having bought (and recommended!) some of her soaps in the past, when she announced she was running courses to learn how to make soap, I knew I wanted to try.
My friend Jo (@handmadebyjo seriously, read the rest of this, then go and check out her beautiful crafts. I mean it!) and I booked. We arrived at Sharon’s ‘she-shed’, her converted garage in her garden and got to work (over multiple cups of tea and yummy home-made biscuits).
Sharon took us through the history and basics of cold process soap making, how the oils bond with the lye and transform during a process called saponification to make soap. It was really interesting to learn that different oils have a different saponification figure, relating to the quantity of lye you need to add. The only downside was that we needed to do some working out, which first thing on a Saturday wasn’t my strong point!
Sharon has a huge variety of ingredients, with base oils including cocoa butter, coconut oil and hemp oil to name a few. I chose avocado oil, olive oil, help oil and sweet almond which I’m hoping will produce a very rich, moisturising soap. Added to that, some rhassoul mud and bladderwrack seaweed, mostly because I like the names (seriously, don’t they sound like the villain in a DC comic?) and mandarin and sandalwood essential oils. It was lots of fun sniffing all the different essential oils and choosing our ‘top notes’, and ‘base notes’. Jo chose cocoa butter, olive oil and avocado oil, with grapefruit and black pepper essential oils.
The first part was to heat the base oils, then preparing the lye (something I’d been a little worried about but Sharon gave us clear instructions and wrapped up in gloves, an apron and protective glasses we mixed the lye with water before monitoring its temperature.
Once both the base oils and the lye were at the same temperature we mixed them together using a hand blender until we were able to achieve ‘trace’, when the mixture has formed a custard-like consistency. It was really interesting watching the changing colour of the mixture. In went the essential oils and it smelled soooooo good! (I think mandarin and sandalwood may be my new favourite combination!)
Finally it was time to pour the soaps into the block. A little tricky as I’m a bit cack-handed at the best of times but managed it. I poured half the mixture in, then blended the rhassoul mud and bladderwrack seaweed with the remainder before adding that, hopefully in a way that it will create an interesting pattern once the soap is cut. Sharon then wrapped up our soaps, explaining that they need to sit for at least three days before being cut and cured.
So now we have to wait for three weeks! I’ll let you know how our soaps turn out.
Have you made cold process soap? Do you have any recipe ideas? Or have you tried the melt and pour? Let me know in the comments below.
Disclaimer: Sharon is a friend. However, I paid for the soap making course (bought during a promotional phase run by Sharon) and all thoughts, photos and opinions are my own.
I met Karen at my first FantasyCon. I was just starting out as a writer, as was Karen so we shared ideas and suggestions before meeting the following year. Shared work on The Girls’ Guide to Surviving the Apocalypse and other projects shored up our friendship. She makes amazing masks, has worked in theatre, lived in China, rides horses and enjoys LARPing and swordplay (she’s even started teaching the Lamb how to swing a sword!). She has two novels out, my favourite The Red Knight and the award nominated Breed and her website. So lets find out more about this fantastic story-teller.
GCH: If you could edit your past, what would you change?
KTD: Nothing. I’ve thought about this on many occasions as I’m sure everyone does (you and I at least;) I’ve come to a conclusion that I’m happy with in that good or ill, everything that’s happened to me has brought me to the place I am today and I rather like that.
GCH: Do you have any superstitions/quirks/unique qualities others would call odd?
KTD: Gosh, hundreds, I should think, I just hide them reasonably well.
GCH: What would you consider your greatest achievement?
KTD: Making two human beings.
GCH: You’ve worked as set and costume designer. How did you become involved in this? Can you share some of the creative process, how you approach these projects, some of your triumphs and, well, not so triumphant creations?
KTD: I’m more of a prop maker than a set designer. I fell sideways into making props when I was working as an actor in various, small theatre companies.
GCH: I’m in awe of the masks you’ve made. How do you create them?
KTD: Aw, shucks, thanks!:) If it’s not to a brief from a client I let my imagination off the leash and, when I’ve got an idea I draw it and then make a pattern keeping in mind what it will look like in 3D…you still awake? When I’m happy with the pattern, I cut it out of leather or make a mould to cast from in whatever material I’m using. Simples!
GCH: What keeps you awake at night?
KTD: Everything. Not everything every night, that would be exhausting, Everything is on rotation. I have a noisy, childish brain that constantly clamours for attention and refuses to shut up unless it’s really, really tired.
GCH: If you could be a character in any movie, book or TV show, who would it be and why?
KTD: Dr Who, fo sho. I can relate to the eccentric outsider and I have a time machine…okay, I don’t have a time machine but I’d still be really good.
GCH: Favourite food? Restaurant or take away?
My favourite food is seafood, although, like Wallace, I’m quite partial to cheese.
GCH: What made you travel to China?
KTD: Escaping the law after a bank job went wrong /jk. I’m quite partial to the occasional BIG adventure and went to Taiwan on a bit of a whim and ended up teaching English out there.
GCH: What was the craziest thing you did while there?
KTD: I got caught in a landslide and fell down Yushan also known as Jade Mountain while out hiking. Not one to do anything by halves, I made sure I fell down the biggest mountain on the island. Whilst lost in the jungle I was lucky enough to come across a couple of tribesmen who showed me the way back to town.
GCH: Strangest thing you’ve ever eaten?
KTD: 1000 year egg. They’re not really a thousand years old, but even so, I can’t recommend them.
GCH: What music do you write to?
KTD: It depends on what I’m writing. When I’m editing a final draft, I quite often don’t listen to anything other than the voices in my head. Rock, goth and techno feature heavily during first drafts depending on the mood I’m after, but it varies widely.
GCH: How do you go about writing a novel/short story/poem?
KTD: If it’s not to a brief/prompt from an editor then it starts as most stories do with a random idea, quite often of the ‘what if?’ variety. It’s then a case of putting one word after another until the story is done. This can take a while and many, many drafts as I’m a bit of a fiddler; I never feel anything I write is ever finished and quite often have my fingers peeled off the keyboard by my wise and patient partner when I’ve revised the same sentence for the twentieth time.
GCH: Tell us about your latest project.
KTD: My latest project is Breed 2, the follow up to my fabulous, award shortlisted novel, Breed. I’m also going to be working on Breed 3 and a spin off novel. (GCH: um, what about the sequel to Red Knight??)
GCH: Tell us a secret.
I could, but then I’d have to kill you.
Synopsis: A couple going through a break up decide to erase each other from their minds. However, it’s only as they start to forget each other that they remember what they have to lose.
Director: Michel Gondry
Starring: Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Tom Wilkinson, Kirsten Dunst
Review: Whilst not an official ‘horror movie’ Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind does raise some interesting questions: would you erase the painful memories from your past? Let’s be honest, we all want to forget something, but would you do it if you just didn’t want to remember a painful breakup, an argument, loss of a loved one?
There’s a really strong cast here, with Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Elijah Wood, Kirsten Dunst and Tom Wilkinson to name a few and they all turn in an excellent performance.
Following their breakup, Joel (Jim Carrey) undergoes a procedure to remove all memories of his girlfriend Clementine (Kate Winslet). However, whilst he’s having the procedure, he realises that perhaps some things are better remembered and his mind rebels, trying to find a place to ‘hide’ his memories of the love he shared with Clementine, so we get to see their relationship, its highs and lows and the ultimate cause of their breakup.
I think this movie raises a number of questions about morality, control and our right to remember and act as individuals, something explored further in Joss Whedon’s ‘Dollhouse’, but covered here in the arc of Mary (Kirsten Dunst) and her employer Dr Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson). Are these procedures done with the full consent and understanding of the patient? And what if the patient doesn’t fully understand or agree with the end results of the procedure? Or what happens if the Doctor becomes a little to omnipotent? It’s a topic touched upon in the movie and leaves the audience with some troubling thoughts once it’s finished.
I love the chemistry between Winslet and Carrey, both of whom alternate between very intense drama and lighter scenes where Carrey is chasing her through his mind. The cinematography and use of colours is great so you clearly know ‘where’ you are, either in reality or not. It’s a movie about ‘real’ people, dealing (or trying to avoid) their pain in whatever means they can, be it through getting drunk, or making poor relationship choices. Each of these characters displays great levels of self awareness but none seem to know the best ways to manage their demons, thereby making poor choices. Winslet’s character in particular is very open about her mental health issues, making it highly relevant. Given it’s Mental Health Awareness week, I can’t help but feel that the message of this movie, about talking about your problems and facing them with help from others is very important.
We love stories here. Be it the worlds of Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler for the Lamb, Scott Snyder for hubby or Gaiman for me, there’s always a yarn being spun (I’m tempted to insert a pun about my knitting addiction here, but I digress).
But whilst I love to read stories, I also love to craft them. I’ve talked before about the voices in my head, telling me their tales (and more than once, their tails!). Way back in 2012 I submitted a short story ‘The Last Dragon Keeper‘ to the monthly Fantasy Faction Writing Challenge. In an open vote, my short story won! As part of National Share-A-Story Month, I thought I’d do a Throwback Thursday to the world of Eui, Rowan and dragons. Click the link to see the original article and carry on reading for my story of The Last Dragon Keeper.
The Last Dragon Keeper
Eui watched as the waves surged towards the shore. Ice had formed on the water, the motion turning it to mush as it covered the smooth grey rocks that acted as boundary between land and sea. She wrapped her arms around herself, trying but failing to keep out the wind, which threatened to tear her clothes and pick at her bones. She knew that her mother would scold her for forgetting her jacket but in her desperation to get out of the house, she had left it, stowed snugly in her wardrobe. Eui stamped her feet to try to warm them but the wind kept forcing its way through her thick boots, biting her toes.
The ground began to shake. It started with a slow trickle of the smaller rocks, which quickly blended with the mush of the ocean water. The larger rocks began to vibrate then roll down the hill and into the water. Eui stood her ground as rocks large and small snapped at her heels, flinching as the larger ones bruised her. Eui breathed deeply, inhaling the familiar ash scent that covered the island more deeply than the perma-snow.
The earth juddered to a stop and Eui carefully stepped out of the pile of stones that covered her feet. The icy slush boiled along the shore then all was still once more. Eui turned as she heard footsteps crunching on the gravel and smiled at her father.
“Your mother is worried about you,” he said, not looking her in the eye but focusing on the ocean.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said what I did.” Eui risked a look at her father but could not read his expression. The silence settled over them, only slightly comfortable.
Finally, taking a deep breath, Eui said, “The dragons are dying father.”
“As are we, Eui, as are we. We can only hope that they die before we do. A dragon alone in this world, without a Keeper, would soon fall prey to the blades of the Sagar.”
If they’re lucky, thought Eui, but she did not pursue the matter.
Every Keeper knew the challenges faced by the dragons. The Sagars were hunters who sold dragon meat and their scales and teeth, which held magical properties. For over a generation they had hunted and killed dragons, depleting their numbers in an unending quest for the perfect hunt: A mythical beast, defined by its purity and beauty. With each retelling of the myth, the dragon grew in grace and size until Eui, who had been told stories of the Sagar which had kept her awake at night, did not recognise the creature as being a dragon but an animal of pure virtue. Knowing no dragon had ever been born matching the myth kept the Sagars hunting and Eui from peaceful dreams.
However, the biggest threat was the dragons themselves. Females would lay between 15-20 eggs and would continually defend her nest from attacks by males. Of the eggs that survived, not all would hatch, with some being trampled. Finally the female, tired and undernourished, would die. If she was lucky, she might see the one or two of her offspring who would emerge from their eggs, snorting flames and growling to be fed.
In the absence of a mother, when the infant dragons smashed from their eggs, they would bond with a Keeper. The Keepers were almost as old as the dragons themselves but they too had slowly grown fewer and fewer until Eui and her brother Rowan were the only non-bonded keepers. The last surviving female was guarding her egg, waiting to die.
“It’s a very special time for your brother. He will be bonded, probably today,” said her father, his eyes remaining on the waves.
“And what about me?” asked Eui.
“Is that why you wish to leave? You lack purpose?”
Eui flashed a quick look at her father. He would claim that it was the wind that brought tears to his eyes, but the clench in Eui’s stomach reminded her of the argument with her mother.
“There is a world beyond the isle, father. I wish to explore and there is nothing here for me. There will be no more dragons once this has hatched and bonded with Rowan. A Keeper with nothing to keep.” Eui’s eyes flooded with tears that threatened to fall. Her father swung an arm around her and gently pulled her close for a brisk hug.
“Come, Eui. They are preparing for the ceremony. I have to get to the Great Hall. Greeson and the elders are waiting for me.”
Together they walked slowly up the beach, slipping occasionally on the loose gravel. Kissing her on the head before gently pushing her towards the settlement, Eui’s father walked towards the mountain. Suddenly he called Eui and she ran to him as the wind stole his words.
“Eui, Keepers are like the seasons. We are currently in the darkest winter we have known, filled with darkness and despair, but after the winter, the spring warmth always comes. Remember, your name means spring in the old tongue. Wait and you will see the beauty when we emerge from the darkness. I know you feel there is nothing for you here, but your brother will need your support and love. Being a Keeper is not easy and he still has a lot to learn.”
Eui gave her father a small smile, then turned and jogged into the settlement, flinging open their door. Her mother looked up from where she was sat by the table, her sewing needle raised. She regarded Eui with a stony expression.
Eui paused, looking contrite under the glare of her mother. “Father said you might need some help preparing for the ceremony,” she said finally.
Her mother laid down her needle. She studied the garments laid out across the table then quietly said, “Go and wake your brother. He needs to get dressed. The ceremony starts soon. The egg is hatching.”
Eui dipped her head and avoided eye contact with her mother as she wound around the large table and up the stairs. Launching into her brother’s room, she jumped onto his bed, bouncing up and down.
“Wakey, wakey,” she called as Rowan swatted at her.
“Get off,” he shouted as Eui continued jumping.
“Mother says you have to get up. The ceremony is going to start soon so you need to get into your dress,” teased Eui.
“It’s a robe,” roared Rowan, sitting up and pushing Eui off the bed.
She landed with cat-like grace, giving him a smug smile. “Whatever. The egg’s hatching. You’re about to become a Keeper.”
“Yeah,” said Rowan without enthusiasm, pulling a shirt from the floor and sniffing it. Deciding it didn’t smell, he dragged it over his head, then ran his fingers through his hair.
Eui watched her brother. Three years older than her thirteen, his training made him appear older but seeing him first thing in the morning always reminded Eui of how young her brother really was.
Playfully kicking him, she ran from the room, calling, “Your dress is on the table. Hurry up or I might spill my breakfast on it.”
Eui charged into the kitchen, Rowan a few paces behind. They both stopped when they saw their mother’s stern face.
“Hurry up,” their mother said, handing Rowan his robe. Smoothing her hair, she stood a little straighter and scowled at her children. “I will see you at the Great Hall,” she said, leaving them.
Eui grinned at her brother. Rowan ignored her and carefully picked up the robes his mother had spent weeks embroidering. Slipping the delicate fabric over his head, it cascade down his body. Checking the sleeves were straight, he tugged at the hem. Eui bit her cheeks to stop from laughing while Rowan slipped into his boots.
“It’s a robe,” he growled.
Eui couldn’t contain herself and started laughing.
Looking down at himself, Rowan sighed, then he too started giggling. “Ok, it’s a dress. Can we go? I have a dragon to meet.”
Together they walked from the settlement towards the Great Hall, Rowan complaining about the cold and the snow getting into his boots. Entering the cave that would take them to the Great Hall, they could hear the Elders singing, and the pained final breaths of the female dragon. The Great Hall was a large cave, which had formed in the mountain, decorated by generations of Keepers. There were designs showing the bonding ceremony, the history of the keepers and dragons, with some designs used to train young keepers.
Eui and Rowan joined their parents, on a large platform just above the pit where the dragon rested with her last remaining egg. The female dragon was large, her scales a burnt orange turning to red on her belly and yellow on her wings. Her breath was shallow and laboured; the keepers knew that it would not be long before she would join her brethren in the flame halls of the underworld.
Eui stole a peek at the egg. It was about the size of a boulder, with mottled brown spots and she heard the frustrated squeaks as its occupier nosed its way out. The Elders stood on the opposite platform, their chants rising and falling with the breaths of the female. The large dragon’s head drooped, rose, then fell again.
Greeson silenced the Elders with a raised hand. “She has passed to the underworld,” he said.
No one made a sound as they watched the dragon ease its nose, then its body and finally its long tail from the egg. It opened its mouth and coughed, sending a ball of flame harmlessly against the wall. Shaking itself, its wings unfurled and the Keepers stood amazed. The baby dragon’s body was a paler colour than its mother’s, but its wings were pure white, veins highlighted in golden scales that caught the light. Shaking its head, it emitted a small bark before experimentally flapping its wings. Its dark green eyes took in the unmoving body of its mother before it spotted Rowan standing on the platform. Another flap of its wings and it was eye level with the platform, barking happily.
The Elders began chanting in the ancient tongue. Eui did not understand all the words but knew it was the song to encourage the dragon to choose its Keeper. Rowan grinned as the dragon looked at him and bowed deeply as he had been taught. The dragon started to dip its head when it caught sight of Eui behind Rowan. Cocking its head to one side it forgot to move its wings, flapping quickly as it began to fall. Rowan remained bowed, but his mother shifted nervously. Rowan dared to peek and frowned when he saw that the dragon was not returning his bow. Finally, he stood and looked at his father, who shrugged his confusion.
Standing, Rowan blocked the dragon’s view of Eui. The dragon craned his neck to look around the boy. Eui looked back wide-eyed back at the creature floating effortlessly before stepping past Rowan and raising her hand towards the dragon.
The dragon swooped close, it’s sudden movement causing Eui to step back in surprise until the dragons long black tongue flicked out, licking her hand. Eui giggled, running her hand along the dragon’s muzzle as it growled contentedly.
“The dragon has chosen its Keeper,” called Greeson, his voice echoing.
Eui stopped playing with the dragon as the words struck her like a physical blow. She looked at Rowan, his face contorted with anger, her mother with her hand covering her mouth in shock and finally her father who was smiling at her. Stepping forward he lifted Eui onto the dragon’s back. Eui hugged the dragon’s neck as it rose and circled the Great Hall.
“Spring has come with the last Dragon Keeper,” Eui’s father said.
Life’s a funny old game isn’t it? You never know who you’re going to meet, and in today’s virtual world, you never know who you’ll meet very briefly in the flesh, but who you’ll end up becoming friends with online. However, that’s how I met Chloë – we met very briefly as Alt-Fiction four years ago, then worked together on different Fox Spirit books, before chatting online and becoming friends.
Chloë has been very open about her struggles with her mental health and as part of Mental Health Awareness Week 2017, she’s kindly agreed to discuss her issues, what methods have worked for her and how her creativity has saved her. She writes as C. A. Yates and is on twitter as @shloobee.
WARNING: Chloë discusses her issues with mental health which may be a trigger for some readers. Also, there may be a little swearing. You have been warned.
GCH: Which living person do you admire most and why?
CAY: Do they have to be alive? Almost all my heroes are dead. Let me have a think. Okay, I’m going to have to go with “someones”. I’m involved with a collective of creative dames, called The Speakeasy, who support each other through thick and thin. There’s musicians, artists, writers, crafties, all sorts. I admire every single one of them and I’d be lost without them. There’s always someone (quite often a dozen someones!) you can speak to and bounce ideas off, to encourage you, to talk over problems with, expel your fury, laugh with, and almost anything else you could need. There’s so much creativity, chutzpah, and common sense in the group, it can’t help but keep me going. I’m honoured to be a member because these women are balls out cool… and that makes me sound like I think I am likewise some cool shit. Maybe I do, maybe I am… *lights cigar and tips hat*
GCH: What is your guiltiest pleasure?
CAY: I don’t believe in guilty pleasures. I mean aside from stuff like chopping up your granny for pies, whatever floats your boat, however it floats your boat, shouldn’t be apologized for. An it harm none, y’know? Guilt and shame are what society uses to pop us in our assigned boxes, to keep us on the supposed straight and narrow so we can “fit in”. Ugh. Fitting in. So vulgar.
GCH: If any of your stories could be made into a movie, which one would it be, who would direct and star?
CAY: Hm. ‘Tuna Surprise!’ from the Fox Pocket, Under the Waves, might be fun. Live action, everyone dressed up as fish. Either Terry Gilliam or Guillermo del Toro would do a magnificent job, natch. Not sure about the stars. Anyone who could cope with the demands of Sub-Aquatic Operatic training? Kate Winslet might give it a decent bash. Of course, I already wrote part of a script for another Fox Pocket, The Evil Genius Guide, called PROFESSOR VENEDICTOS VON HOLINSHED VERSUS THE SORORAL LEAGUE OF BAZOOKA-BIKINI-WIELDING DEMONIC DIVAS FROM OUTER SPACE (it won’t let me write it in anything but capital letters, sorry). Ed Wood is dead though and who else could do it justice?
GCH: What music do you write to?
CAY: The Cure (aka The Greatest Band in the World Ever) is always my first port of call. My story in Fox Spirit’s anthology Respectable Horror is called ‘The Holy Hour’ and I listened to the song on repeat the entire time I wrote it. They make my brain swell in that good way that means it’s really ticking.
I can’t lie; I will listen to pretty much anything. To pare it down, any old Eighties playlist (I LOVE making playlists, every story has one) is likely to please me. Zoë Keating is a more modern favourite. She’s a cellist and her music is incredible. I really can’t recommend her enough. Epically talented. Sometimes I need absolute quiet, depending on what I’m tackling, sometimes I need something loud and thumping; I recently discovered Rage Against The Machine (yes, I know, I know). They seem very cross about a lot of things and the fury and the loud keeps my head in the game, as the kids say in Management Cliché school.
GCH: Any tips for how you edit your work?
CAY: Editing is my favourite part of writing. I’m a procrastinator and a perennial self-loather with first drafts, but once I have something down, it’s best to go at it like the Devil eating cherries. Yes, he likes cherries, ask Jack Nicholson. Keep at it for a while, take a break, and then go back (to the editing, not the cherries; too many cherries will give you the raging Trotskies, and I don’t mean you’ll get all revolutionary and such). Never get to the point where you feel like you want to bang your head through the screen or page (even though I do it all the time; what’s good for the goose sucks for the gander). Get up, Taylor Swift that shit off, and go back when you’re less frustrated. Just don’t stay away too long.
GCH: Writers are always asked where they get their inspiration. Where do you get yours?
CAY: Moonbeams and rainbows and coke bottle bottoms… there’s no real answer to this because ideas come from anywhere and everywhere! I read a lot, love art of most kinds, take frequent trips through the internet, keep notes about everything – news stories, the people I meet and see, places I visit – I love quote websites, surfing through image stashes online, etc. All these things can trigger an idea into being. I recently felt a tingle of inspiration while staring at an embankment on the M25. Story lives in the air we breathe, even when it’s thick with noxious fumes.
GCH: Tell us about your latest writing project.
CAY: My primary focus at the moment is on something called Feral Tales for Fox Spirit Books. I can’t tell you too much, but I guess you could say it’s concerned with what happens when you leave the path…
GCH: What’s your favourite drink? Wine or beer? Tea or coffee?
CAY: Water predominantly, although a mug of sweet, strong coffee always goes down well. That said, I’ve yet to say no to an ice cold Martini, two olives, no dirt.
GCH: What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever eaten?
CAY: When I was very small we lived right by a river. My mum would often find me behind the sofa, which was in front of the window, eating all the poor insects that had flown in and died (there were a lot). Necrophagia ain’t just for the ghouls, baby… or perhaps I was a ghoul baby?
GCH: You’ve been very open about your mental health issues. Would you mind giving a brief outline of how they affect your day-to-day activities?
CAY: It might sound like a cliché, but some days simply getting out of bed, feeling like it’s worth it, like I’m worth it, is the hardest part. Sometimes it lasts all day, sometimes there’s just a flash of it, but it happens every single morning. It’s a bloody ballache to be honest, like waking up and hitting a brick wall. That said, and I don’t want to sound glib, lately I’ve found coffee can help immeasurably. The ritual of making it – measuring out the grains, heating the water, pouring it into my special mug, sipping its inky delights – gives me a specific task to focus on first thing. It’s one thing I can definitely get done. Small things can change your mindset more than you might imagine.
Focussing can be hard work – I admire anyone who can do it. I munch up people’s advice about it like a starving man, but applying it successfully can seem like the Holy fucking Grail. This is of course pepped up by the wonder that is self-doubt which, on a bad day, can come at me like a petrolhead’s pimped out monster truck. I mean, we all have self-doubt, and with creative types I guess it’s especially endemic, but it can paralyse me, dousing me with a whole ‘can’t do right for doing wrong’ feeling that’s very frustrating and wholly unproductive. I can sit in front of my computer for long stretches seeing nothing but emptiness and pointlessness. Well, I say nothing but obviously I am EPIC at making myself feel terrible about myself and if reinforcing negativity were an Olympic Sport you wouldn’t have heard of that Redgrave fella. It’s very difficult to talk about all this without sounding like a liability, but if people want to think that about me, let them. Being more open about it has really helped my recovery and maybe it can help someone else too. That’d be a genuinely Good Thing.
GCH: You’ve recently been having some successes at dealing with your anxiety. How have you managed this?
CAY: Last autumn, stuck in bed with bronchitis and the broken rib of doom it caused, my mental health in total disarray, I felt pretty much like I was over, that I was going to be trapped in this awful cycle for the rest of my life with no way out. It was suffocating. I’ve felt bleak before but that was something else entirely. Anyway, during a half-hearted Internet perusal, I read about something called DBT – Dialectical Behaviour Therapy. It focuses a lot on mindfulness, calming yourself down, analysing what you are really feeling, and gives you the tools to help keep you balanced. When I say it’s changed my life, saved it even, I’m not overstating the case. I’m clearer and calmer than I’ve been in so long it feels almost like a miracle. It’s not, it takes hard work and constant vigilance, but it is the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. I’m still learning and probably always will be, and that gives me more hope than anything.
GCH: How has your writing helped you to cope?
CAY: Ironically enough, while I often find it difficult to focus, writing is a lifesaver. It’s a bit like me wishing on those Ruby Slippers; it’s been there all along, I just had to realise it. I can channel all my negative emotions and frustrations into my work, I can control it (if it sometimes feels like it’s the story dragging me along that’s okay because I brought it into being in the first place), and it’s a place of shelter from the cacophony of the world. I’d rather be there than most anywhere else. Except libraries. Libraries are the best.
GCH: Mental health is increasingly coming into the (I hate to use this phrase but it’s either this or the worse ‘popular consciousness’) ‘mainstream’ with books by Matt Haig and the ‘Heads Together’ charity set up by the royals. Has highlighting these issues helped you to cope better?
CAY: To be honest, I don’t feel like it has helped me cope better on a personal level, but anything that highlights the issue and tries to de-stigmatize mental illness is just fine by me. I often find that people are happy to pay lip service to the fact that mental illness is the same as physical illness, that we should take it every bit as seriously, but I can’t tell you how often that goes out the window when the latter does come up. I understand it, but it shows how much work still needs to be done. It sure as shit can kill you just as easily as cancer can and needs to be taken every bit as seriously. I don’t say any of that lightly.
GCH: Whilst treatment and the complexities of individual diagnoses, what would you say to others suffering from mental health problems?
CAY: To be clear, while I am pretty open about my mental health issues, I am in no way an expert and have no desire to set myself up as such. With that in mind, there are two things I personally rely on. First, remind yourself to breathe. Stop a moment, concentrate on your breathing. Give yourself time. Repeat. It might sound banal, but it’s the easiest form of self-soothing there is. Second, YOU MATTER. Don’t let anyone, not even that nasty little inner voice that’s so bloody convincing, tell you otherwise. You. Matter.
GHC: Tell us a secret.
CAY: Everybody’s pretending. None of us know what we’re doing, so keep on trucking.